From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Texting While Driving: Stop it by Design, or by Behavior?

Texting drivers appear to have given a collective shrug to public concerns about their habit, so United States Transportation Secretary Roy La Hood called a two-day summit in September to look for ways to force them to quit. A nationwide ban seems likely, but at least two experts say there is a better approach.

Meanwhile, there is no lack of support for a ban. Ford Motor Company commissioned a survey that shows 93 percent of licensed drivers support a ban on texting. But only 42 per cent of the respondents said they thought drivers would actually stop texting if it were banned.

Ergonomics thinking is implicit in the approach suggested by the two experts, Mark A. Shiffrin, a lawyer and a former consumer protection commissioner for Connecticut, and Avi Silberschatz, the chairman of the computer science department at Yale. The way to stop people from using cell phones while driving is not to make it a crime, they said, as too many drivers value convenience more than safety and would assume they wouldn’t get caught. Their suggestions in the New York Times on October 4 take into account the tendency of human nature to override commonsense, whether imposed in the form of a ban or not.

As a more effective approach, they recommend encouraging telecommunications companies to harness technology to make it difficult or impossible to text and drive at the same time. Cell phone towers could be engineered to cease transmitting a signal while a phone is traveling, then to resume transmission when the phone has ceased moving. They also suggest that hardware in cars and software in cell phones could disable some phone functions when cars are moving. The two experts liken the approach to putting a guard on a knife handle or a grill over the blades of a fan.

Passenger texting isn’t a threat to safety, so the technology could be further engineered to allow only passengers to use the devices when a vehicle is in motion. The experts suggest this might be accomplished by tethering phones that can override the safety shut-off to the passenger side of the car.

Shiffrin and Silberschatz argue that technologically impeding cell phone talk as well as texting by a driver in a moving car has merit. They point to research evidence that the distraction of the call, regardless of how it is made or responded to, creates an underlying level of danger.

An October 7 NewsDay editorial takes the same line. This is a job better left to the folks who gave us cell phones and the ability to send and receive text messages, according to the editorial. Too often it’s only after a crash that it becomes clear a driver was texting. Technology created this problem, the editorial argues, and technology should solve it.

It proposes a web site where motorists can test their ability to drive when they have their eyes and thumbs on a mobile device as “the sobering dose of reality drivers need.”

Sources: Ford Motor Company; New York Times; NewsDay